It’s 5:00pm on Tuesday July 31, 2018, and the spectacular brownish sundown rays shine over the Gulf of Guinea at Axim in Ghana’s Western Region. At the shores are many canoes with different inscriptions and waving flags, ‘dancing’ to the current of the ocean.
On one wooden canoe is a middle aged fisherman gazing at a particular canoe. He intermittently changes from left to right, the hands that supports his chin.
“My name is Michael Nokoe”. He tells me. “I was born and raised here in Axim as a fisherman’s son. That canoe over there looks exactly like the one I lost. You see that one”?
Michael is pondering over the loss of a crew member and his canoe, and how he could have lost his own life in the sea that fateful night of August 7, 2013. “It’s one painful memory that ‘haunts’ me many nights”. He said. “You know, sometimes, that harrowing accident plays back in my mind as though it happened yesterday”.
Michael’s fishing crew of five was hit by an ‘oil supply vessel’. In the process, one crew member drowned and was never seen. The other four hung onto pieces of the canoe until some fishermen saw and rescued them 6 hours later.
Michael tells me that, “that ship or oil supply vessel which committed this crime was never seen again. Upon all the letters I wrote to the Ghana Maritime Authority, the Ghana Navy and the Police, that vessel could not be identified. We could not identify the vessels that used Ghana’s sea that night”.
Sad isn’t it? But if you think Michael’s case is troubling, then brace yourself for this recent one. It happened on September 22, 2018. Three lives are yet to be accounted for as at the time this article was being pieced together. Three fishermen have been missing for 7 days after a “supply” vessel crashed into their fishing vessel whilst they were asleep in the night at sea. How did it happen?
A recent tragedy!
The five fishermen from Shama in the Shama District of the Western Region are on a regular fishing expedition. It’s Saturday September 22, 2018 and onboard the ‘Great Emmanuel’ motorized canoe, are five crew members; Uncle Acheampong , Nana Jab , Kweku Abeiku , Kobina , and Kojo Ackon . They are over 4 hours into the journey, but night is falling. The team decides to rest and continue early morning.
“So we cooked, and after eating, we lit all the illuminating lights around our canoe and went sleeping. At about 10:30pm, I felt the urge to pass urine. Just as I got up, look, here comes a giant ship speeding towards us. It has come so close that I had to lift my head high up to see it. Before I could scream for all our members to get out to safety, we were hit by the ship and our canoe broke into pieces. Only two of us, I and Nana Jab could hold on to some pieces. The other team members; Kweku Abeiku, Uncle Acheampong and Kobina fell into the water. We shouted and screamed amid tears in search of them in the dark, but no word was heard of them”.
“We spent the whole of Sunday without any help whatsoever. No water or food. No vessel even passed to rescue the two of us. It was in the afternoon of Monday that some colleague fishermen saw us and brought us to Shama. The ship that crashed into our canoe did not stop. We also couldn’t make out the color or any inscription on it in the dark and in the midst of the confusion. I have lost my friends and team members. I hardly sleep because anytime I close my eyes, I feel like something is coming”Kojo Ackon, one of the two survivors, narrated to me.
Just like the 2013 accident, the ship involved is yet to be identified by the Navy, Marine Police and other maritime authorities. The homes of the lost souls in Shama remain traumatized and shocked. 7 children have had to embrace a hard reality of growing without their fathers.
In the 2013 case of Michael, he tells me he is “yet to come to a closure to this tragic experience”, after 5 years. The expenses of performing the lost crew member’s funeral rites, the ‘troubles’ from his family, the cost of building a new canoe and the trauma left in the minds of the remaining four are ‘dividends’ Michael receives alone until this day.
In such tragedies, it is common for no one to be “punished” for the accident. Once particulars of the vessels were not captured by the crew in the heat of the moment, the opportunity of holding the vessel and its operators to account are lost, maybe, forever.
Marine space accidents under reported
What is happening on our seas barely gets to the front pages. The Ghana Ports and Harbours Authority reports on the Takoradi Harbour; the hub for oil and gas activities that, “since the discovery of oil and gas in August 2017, shows that the overall total vessel calls has increased from 11 percent in 2007 to 60 percent in 2015, peaking in 2012 with 63 percent. Out of the 1,525 calls to the port in 2015, 910 representing 60 percent of vessel calls were offshore oil related”.
These increases in vessel calls, though good for Ghana’s young oil and gas industry, have come with a new form of threat to fishermen in Ghana, particularly those along the western coast.
“On Saturday 19th November 2016, an oil tanker with inscription KokkariNasu 9337157 which was going to load crude oil from Floating Production Storage and Offloading [FPSO] Kwame Nkrumah, accidentally dropped its anchor and destroyed 8 nets belonging to fishermen from Axim”. A letter written by Michael Nokoe on another incident to Tullow Oil Plc on 12th January 2017 and cited indicated. Thankfully no life was lost.
Statistics from the Fisheries Commission shows that in a matter of three years, 30 collisions have been recorded.
Notice that these are figures only reported to the Fisheries Commission. The Petroleum Commission and the Ghana National Canoe Fishermen Council, GNCFC, also receive and process some of the complaints.
Shockingly, these accidents hardly find their way to the national dailies. Which of these incidents above made it into dailies that you know of? Michael’s story never made it to the front pages. Same for the recent Shama tragedy.
Counting the loss
Apart from the ultimate loss of priceless human lives, the yearly occurrence of these collisions since 2010 have come at a financial cost to both the canoe owners and the oil and gas companies.
It is also safe to say that, since the beginning of the oil business in Ghana, almost all oil companies operating in Ghana’s marine space; Tullow, Cosmos Energy, including those who have even packed and gone, have either paid or are paying compensation to fishermen for collisions. Tullow’s Grievance Redress Mechanism Form, for example, is largely issued to fishermen when such incidents happen at sea.
Conflict between fish and oil
The growing search for oil, with its increased calls for supply vessels and safety exclusive zones at a time when fish stock in Ghana’s maritime space has significantly dwindled, sets oil and gas companies and fishermen on a perilous path. Each of these actors is competing for ‘survival’. It becomes even more complicated when fishermen are somehow “convinced” that it’s in the same areas where oil activities are happening that they can get fishes.
What fishermen say
A number of fishing gears have been seized by security patrols around the FPSOs. Those fishing tools were seized from fishermen whose fishing expeditions were deemed to pose a threat to the offshore installations.
Whilst oil companies see the seizure as a step to protecting ‘national investments’, some fishermen see the move as a threat to their livelihoods and a move to collapse their business, as articulated by Papa Duku at Lower Dixcove in the Ahanta West Municipality.
He tells me that “they keep saying we shouldn’t go to where they have their machines. Tell me, which sensible fishing crew would want to go fishing with all the expenses at areas where there are no fishes to catch? Will that crew be able to survive? The oil companies are doing their business, so why should they stop us from eating? Mr. Journalist, please notice that this is a livelihood matter. For me, even though my fishing nets have been seized, I will still go there because I know there are fishes there”.
“Temporal” measures by some International Oil Companies [IOCs]
It is instructive to notice that, Ghana’s oil partners have devised various approaches to ensuring that they live in harmony with fishermen whilst they wait for the ‘ultimate’ solution.
Tullow Oil Plc for example periodically engages fishermen in the six coastal districts of the western region to update them on safety concerns and how tranquility could prevail.
Italian oil giant ENI said in an email response to how it is working to ensure peaceful co-existence with fishermen that “…To ensure that this exclusive zone is respected in the Offshore Cape Three Point [OCTP] project, we work with patrolling vessels that advise fishers from getting close to the FPSO John AgyekumKufuor, and ward them off if they do”.
It added that “… we also have continuous engagement of fishing communities in the Western Region to sensitize them on dangers associated with incursions into exclusive zones of FPSO and other offshore oil and gas installations. We believe that the way forward is working with the Government and the Regulators to evolve appropriate human rights-based action plans in enforcing the exclusive zones”.
Shortcomings of present co-existence mechanisms
It is instructive to note that the present approaches is costly to the oil companies, which in return affects how much revenues Ghana gets from their operations. This is because the cost of the patrolling vessels in the case of ENI and other partners is likely to be treated as operational cost. Again, the dwindling fish stock; a phenomenon with no end in sight, ‘forces’ fishermen to ‘potential’ fishing areas close to safety zones, sending signals of a never-ending request for continuous patrolling with its associated cost to both the IOCs and the state.
“We also have a situation where fishermen overprice the components destroyed by an incursion. The cost of items in some cases are just unrealistic” Fisheries Commission office in the Western Region told me in an interview.
This has led to some oil companies to believe that some fishermen deliberately get ‘unused canoes’ to collide with vessels in order to claim compensations. These unscrupulous profiteers when they fail in claiming what they had planned, spew out untruths about IOCs to their colleagues, heightening the ‘mistrust’ between oil firms and fishermen.
The ultimate is that, despite the patrolling, despite the commitment by IOCs to work in peace with fishermen, accidents do occur, which is why collisions keep appearing in record books year after year. When they do, some lives are lost.
Question is, what can the state, IOCs and fishermen do to ensure a ‘lasting’ peaceful co-existence? “We believe that the way forward is working with the government and the regulators to evolve appropriate human rights-based action plans in enforcing the exclusive zones” ENI stated in its response.
Can a Marine Spatial Plan be the solution?
This is a question I posed to Solomon Kusi Ampofo, the Natural Resource Governance expert at Friends of the Nation, an NGO in Takoradi. He described a Marine Spatial Plan as “a framework that designates specific uses within the marine space that integrates conservation, economic and social uses as well as for recreational purposes”.
“This plan will identify areas that are productive in terms of fisheries and conserve those areas as marine reserves or marine protected areas. It can also identify areas that are abundant in hydrocarbons and designate areas with the potential for the exploration and production of these oil and gas resources. It also clearly identifies areas for maritime transportation, and areas for recreation and areas for other purposes as we might identify in future. This is critical with the growth of the oil and gas sector in Ghana”.
Supporting evidence at a glance
Mr. Ampofo explained that “when you take the three production fields in Ghana [Jubilee, TEN and GYE NYAME], there are 24 other discoveries of oil and gas resources that are at different stages of development. The fishing industry as we speak has over 14,000 artisanal canoes at sea. We know the importance of the fisheries sector to employment and our GDP. We also have those ships that use the space to transport goods to and from Ghana”.
“You can clearly see that it makes sense at this time to identify these multiple users of our marine space and designate specific areas for specific use. This will help avoid conflicts and also accidents because the fishermen will know where it has been clearly designated for fishing, they know where large ships are occurring, oil and gas supply vessels know which part to commute, and the rest of it”.
UNESCO throws weight behind MSP
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO, states the importance of a Marine Spatial Plan that the “demand for marine goods and services, such as food, energy, and habitats, usually exceed the capacity of marine areas to meet all of the demands simultaneously. In many cases, users have free access [like in Ghana’s case] to marine resources, including space that leads to excessive overuse and eventual destruction of resources. [Because of this reality], some public process must be used to decide what mix of outputs from the marine areas should be produced over time and space”.
As we ponder over these accidents and their human and financial implications to Ghana, may people who matter at the Energy and Petroleum Ministry, Fisheries and Aquaculture Ministry and the Fisheries Commission return to the table and revive the “sleeping” preliminary work done on the Marine Spatial Plan.
Next article will examine how a Marine Spatial Plan can help deal with Ghana’s dwindling fish stock with support from the Far DwumaNkɔdoproject, implemented by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), and Hen Mpoano, and funded by the European Union.
By: Obrempong Yaw Ampofo/citinewsroom.com/Ghana